Pastors, The Church, and Mental Health

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If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

 

Let me get real with you for a moment: September 16thwas a very, very hard day. Why? Because I am not only a pastor but also someone who deals with depression and anxiety. There, I said it, I am a pastor who struggles with mental health issues and takes medication for it daily. That isn’t something you are going to hear very much because of the way a pastor is viewed in our society, but I will get to that later, first let me tell you about why this day was so hard. 

 

Along with being a pastor I am also a barista and, on this day, I could feel the weight of depression on me throughout my 6-hour shift. As I got off, a person from my church was there having a conversation and asked me what I was going to do the rest of the day, I told them I was going to cry. They said “ok pastor”, chuckling because they know me well, including my struggles and were genuinely joking, but they were also a little shocked by my answer. My reply was simple, “What? Pastors can’t cry?” And I meant what I said. You see, while they were merely joking, this mindset about a pastor is prevalent in our society and can lead to some disastrous ends. No one want to envision someone who helps to lead a church sitting in their car outside of a grocery store crying without knowing why. No one wants to believe that the one who speaks to them from a stage about the goodness of God and the love of Jesus could be so burdened in their mind that they can barely function on a given day. Unfortunate, that is exactly how life can be sometimes, and that was me on this day; I was sitting outside of the grocery store before doing my shopping, sobbing uncontrollably, feeling the weight of depression crushing me, texting my wife things such as “My life is so good yet it can still hurt so bad”, feeling alone without anyone to turn to because I am the one who is supposed to have all the answers and to be so weak seems  almost… wrong…shameful…and ultimately, unqualifying. This is the reality of a person called to ministry who also deals with the struggle of mental health problems. 

 

On September 10th, Jarrid Wilson, the associate pastor of a megachurch in California, committed suicide after a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety. He had just officiated a funeral for a woman who committed suicide, posted about it on his social media accounts, asking for prayers for the family and being open about how sometimes following Jesus doesn’t alleviate the torment of mental illness, but Jesus is in the midst of the struggle with you. Unfortunately, by the end of that night, his wife and children were the ones needing prayers as they ultimate lost a husband and a father to the battle of mental illness. He was just 30 years old. Months before another pastor, Andrew Stoecklein also of California, took his own life after battling mental illness. He was also 30 years old. A senior pastor I know is leading a church because the founding pastor of the church took his own life. He was 51 years old. These are just a few examples and the numbers, not just for pastors but for all of society, are disturbing and the conversation about mental health in the church must be one that is at the forefront, here and now.

 

It is hard to be a pastor, the call of ministry is not an easy one, but it is the most rewarding thing on the planet. The privilege to be able to share the love of Jesus with people and to help people in their walk with Jesus is amazing . It does, however, come with many hardships. You can feel like you are on an island, all alone, bearing the responsibility of leading and the burden of so many people. Add depression and anxiety to the mix, something pastors aren’t supposed to deal with and especially feel like they can’t talk about, and it can end in disaster. Not just pastors but anyone, in any walk of life, can feel lost and alone fighting mental illness because of the stigma associated with it. This cannot continue. We must stand up and say that it is ok to struggle, it is ok to seek help, it is ok to have a counselor, and it is ok to take medicine to aid the battle of mental illness. We wouldn’t tell a diabetic to forgo using their insulin and just have faith that they are not a diabetic anymore, so why would someone dealing with a physical problem in their brain, manifesting itself in symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts, be told that they should not take medicine and they should just get over it? That is absurd! But, in far too many churches, this is the case. I know what the Bible says about emotions and feelings, I understand why people feel the way they do about illness that they cannot see, but we must change the way we approach mental illness or people will still feel hopeless and lost which can ultimately lead to them ending their life long before it should be over.

 

Here are the cold hard facts. Suicide is the 10thleading cause of death in the US. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide. In that same year, there were an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts. How can we ignore these numbers? How can we allow this to continue? Is this not a conversation worth having and a cause worth fighting for? Sometimes I wonder if God allows me to go through this so I can be one who speaks for those who will not, to be an example of a spiritual leader who also deals with mental health struggles. If that is the case, and my suffering help’s save another’s life, I will continue to bear that burden and be a pastor who struggles, but I will not be one who struggles silently and in the shadows. Even typing that fills me with fear because I want to be set free from this, but perhaps God has other plans.

 

 If you do not struggle but know someone who does, reach out to them and tell them you love them, and try to understand what is going on in their life. It may just be what helps set them free. If you are reading this and are one who struggles with mental health, you are not alone, and God has not abandoned you. He loves you with an everlasting love that is shown in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, and he can set you free. But even if he does not he is in the fight with you and others, like me, are in with you. You also have a home at Revelry Church in Indiana, Pa and a community that will love you and come alongside you in all that you are going through. Please, don’t fight this alone, people are here for you.

-       Brandon Stiffler, Associate Pastor – Revelry Church